Pleasures of reading diluted by online nonsense

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, April 27, 2016
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In honor of World Book Day, which falls on April 23, China News Service published a photo that day showing dozens of young people reading on a Beijing metro car. This observance, established by UNESCO in 1995, is meant to encourage people, especially teenagers, to "discover the pleasure of reading."

Also on April 23, the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death was marked by a host of events all over the world. Such celebrations came even though, according to one UK-based newspaper, young people today are more likely to recognize the lyrics of Justin Bieber than lines from Shakespeare.

Speaking of Shakespeare, I was put in mind recently of one line from Hamlet: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals."

If the Bard had a chance to see today's humans now crouched over their smartphones or tablets — to the exclusion of everything else — would he be similarly impressed?

The Financial Times reported recently about how many "overloaded" Chinese are now battling "WeChat fatigue." The paper went on to mention just how pervasive WeChat has become in China, where the nearly ubiquitous app is used for voice messaging, video conferencing, e-commerce transactions and gaming, among other functions.

As a whole, the Chinese people used to be known as great lovers of books and reading, and it's sad now to see so many consumed by WeChat and online fantasy. I know of no figures regarding the average number of books in the Chinese households, but imagine it can be embarrassingly small for many. After all, books are passe, newspapers are dying, while smartphones are progressive and state-of-the-art.

It's no longer surprising for Chinese to allege that they have hundreds of contacts on WeChat. It's also interesting to see how quickly strangers are willing to connect — through the ritual of scanning one another's WeChat QR codes.

An estimated 25 percent of users say they check their WeChat account more than 30 times per day, as they are daily bombarded by noisy WeChat groups, forced to share others' moments, or moved by memories posts of their friends and family.

We usually keep our distance from trash and junk, but so many of us keep coming up with reasons to continue viewing trash online — and not just on WeChat. I continue to use WeChat, though I no longer argue, endorse, or commiserate. Occasionally I am dictated to support someone's cousin or uncle in a WeChat-based competition.

We have degenerated into a species that regards these bit and pieces as essentials, while also being totally blind to signs of eternity around us.

Sweetness and light

My son visited Shanghai Zoo last Friday. He was at a loss over the weekend over a composition he had to finish about the visit.

"We walked for two kilometers without seeing any animals, just crowds of people," he groaned.

I asked if there were any trees or flowers around while they were walking. He replied, "Yes, but so what?"

We had some of the world's greatest thinkers 2,000 years ago, but many Chinese today are too busy to stand and stare, to look around, to reflect, or even to get bored.

In our faith in the gadgets we hold in our hands, in our determination to be constantly informed, enriched and instructed, we have only succeeded in making ourselves busy. And we also appear to be very smug about it.

We are no longer interested in any journey, or process. This smugness prevents us from deriving greater wisdom from nature, for instance how a flower will bloom in its own way, at its own pace, without worrying about what its neighbors will think.

I'm no longer sure if Shakespeare, speaking through his character Hamlet, is right in touting man as the "paragon of animals," for all other animals seem to be content with the niche assigned them — and enjoy what they have.

In the first century, the Roman philosopher Seneca, while commenting on the brevity of human life, observed how some people become so busy it is almost like they are wasting their lives.

Good books once remedied our innate deficiency by providing us with sweetness and light, and enabling us to be reflective and responsive to nature.

We are in danger of being deprived of these benefits.

As people argue over whether "thinking" robots and artificial intelligences like the one that triumphed over South Korean Go master Lee Se-dol in March might one day enslave mankind, it's worth looking at our increasingly crammed, hurried and fragmented lives and wondering whether the machines might have already won.

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